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SpaceX Demo Flight to ISS Still on for April 30 But Expectations Need to be Dampened

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2012 (Updated: 16-Apr-2012 11:59 PM)

Dampening expectations for a complete success was a major theme of today's NASA press conference following the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the SpaceX demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS).  The launch date for the mission remains targeted for April 30.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier cautioned, however, that some tests remain to be be completed before a final decision is made and the mission is very challenging.

SpaceX will be conducting those tests, primarily related to software, and reporting back to NASA by April 23.  NASA does not expect to perform another FRR at that time, but will consider the results before formally committing to the launch date.   If it does not go on April 30, May 3 would be the next opportunity.

SpaceX succeeded in convincing NASA to combine the last two of its ISS demonstration flights, so this mission, dubbed C2+, is especially difficult.  The company launched its first demonstration flight, C1, of the Falcon 9 rocket coupled with the Dragon spacecraft in December 2010.  It was supposed to launch two more test flights, C2 and C3, but this flight combines the objectives of both, hence the C2+ designation.  It will be only the third flight of Falcon 9 and the second flight of Dragon.   SpaceX founder Elon Musk sounded optimistic about the performance of those two components of his space transportation system, but stressed that other aspects of the mission are firsts -- such as rendezvous and berthing with the ISS, and the solar arrays for Dragon.    "We've got a pretty good shot," he said, "but there's a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this."

Musk noted that SpaceX hopes to launch two more missions to the ISS this year and if berthing is not successful this time it will try again.   Gerstenmaier made clear that these commercial cargo missions are "critical" for ISS operations.  Dragon, in particular, is the only cargo spacecraft capable of returning materials to Earth.   Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV spacecraft are not designed to survive reentry and burn up in the atmosphere.   Dragon is designed for a survivable water landing, which was demonstrated during the December 2010 mission.

These cargo flights do not carry anyone aboard, but SpaceX hopes to evolve Dragon into a vehicle capable of carrying crew.   When pressed today, Musk ventured that a flight with a crew might be possible in about three years if this demonstration flight succeeds. 

Following the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA has no way to launch cargo or crew to the ISS.  It is completely dependent on Russia to take people to and from the ISS, and Russia, Europe and Japan for cargo transport.

This mission will take 521 kilograms of cargo to the ISS, primarily crew provisions including food, as well as one Nanorack with student experiments, and some replacement parts.   It will return 660 kilograms of material to Earth, landing in the ocean off the California coast after 18 days berthed with the ISS.   Decisions are not final on what will be returned.

Musk said he did not know how much SpaceX has spent on this commercial cargo vehicle specifically, but said the company has spent a total of about $1 billion over the course of its history.   NASA provided $381 million of that, while Musk and other investors provided the rest.  NASA said it owes SpaceX another $15 million when it achieves the remaining three milestones under the Space Act Agreement through which NASA is facilitating SpaceX's development of the transportation system.   Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's manager of commercial crew and cargo at Johnson Space Center, replied to a question by saying that studies have concluded that it would have cost NASA four to ten times more to develop this capability under conventional contracting methods.

Between now and April 23, the company will continue tests to make certain that its hardware and software interact correctly under various circumstances.   Musk stressed that Dragon is autonomous -- no one is aboard with a joystick to make decisions.   It is all done by software.  "Dragon is making a lot of decisions all the time," he said.   In the past month, he continued, the biggest problem is "false aborts" when Dragon gets "worried" about something and aborts the mission when it is not necessary.



NASA Flight Readiness Review for SpaceX Mission Underway-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Apr-2012 (Updated: 16-Apr-2012 02:28 PM)

UPDATE:  Bob Jacobs at NASA tweets that the press conference will be held about 3:30 pm ET.

NASA's Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the upcoming SpaceX mission to the International Space Station is now underway.  You can follow the action via NASA's Twitter account using the hashtag #FRR.

NASA plans a press conference this afternoon after the FRR is completed.   The time is TBD, depending on when the FRR concludes.   Follow NASA on Twitter to keep track of what time it will take place.  It will be aired on NASA TV.

Events of Interest: Week of April 16-20, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Apr-2012 (Updated: 15-Apr-2012 06:55 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.  The House and Senate both return to work after a two-week recess.

During the Week

Weather permitting, Tuesday is the day the space shuttle Discovery will make its last trip aboard the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it moves from Kennedy Space Center to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, VA just outside of Washington for permanent exhibition.  NASA is anticipating spectacular views of Discovery's arrival as it is flown over national landmarks in the Washington area.   Details on where to get the best view are on the Smithsonian's website as well as NASA's.

If all goes according to schedule, you can watch Discovery arrive and then hop up to Capitol Hill for the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee markup of the FY2013 budget requests under its jurisdiction, which include NASA and NOAA.  It is at 2:30 pm in 192 Dirksen.  This is the first markup of the FY2013 appropriations season that affects NASA and NOAA.  It is followed one hour later with the markup of the T-HUD bill that includes the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Of course it's not clear how many of the space policy community will be in Washington on Tuesday since the National Space Symposium is being held this week (Monday-Thursday) in Colorado Springs, CO.  

Those are just a few of the space policy-related events coming up this week.   See below for a complete list.

Monday, April 16

Monday-Thursday, April 16-19

Tuesday, April 17

Wednesday, April 18

Friday, April 20

NASA Seeks Input for Planning for New Mars Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2012 (Updated: 13-Apr-2012 11:33 PM)

Details remain scant, but NASA held a teleconference today to provide an update on the work of the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) headed by Orlando Figueroa.  The MPPG was created when NASA had to dramatically change its plans for future robotic Mars exploration because of budget constraints that forced it to pull out of a cooperative effort with the European Space Agency (ESA).

At today's media teleconference, John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), and Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, joined Figueroa in explaining the scope and timetable for the MPPG.   Figueroa said that he made a preliminary report to Grunsfeld a week and a half ago.  The next major step will be a workshop in June at the Lunar and Planetary Institute to obtain input from a broad cross section of the global science and technical community, which is encouraged to submit abstracts to bring forward ideas that "will inform a strategy for exploration within available resources, beginning as early as 2018," according to NASA's press release.   The final report from the MPPG is due to Grunsfeld in August.

The report is intended to provide options and pathways for the future of an integrated Mars exploration program that brings together the goals of SMD and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).   Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, emphasizes that President Obama directed NASA to send humans to the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s and robotic missions are needed to work in concert with NASA's human exploration office, along with NASA's technology office, to achieve that goal.

August is an interesting time for such a report to emerge.   NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) with its Curiosity rover is due to land at Gale Crater on Mars on August 6 EDT (August 5 PDT).   The mission involves a never-before-used landing system called a sky crane that adds another layer of risk to what is always a risky endeavor -- landing a spacecraft on Mars.  When the chair of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board asked a panel of NASA science officials last week "what keeps you awake at night," Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, replied the "seven minutes of terror from the top of the [Mars] atmosphere to landing."

Leonard David, reporting for Aerospace America, asked at today's teleconference what will happen to the MPPG results if the Curiosity landing fails.   Would congressional support for a new Mars mission dim if Curiosity -- a $2.5 billion mission -- crashes, he queried?   The NASA officials avoided a direct answer to the question, although Grunsfeld eventually responded by emphasizing that all such missions are very risky and there are "no guarantees," but he thinks interest in Mars will continue to be strong regardless.

In response to a question, McCuistion revealed that the money for a new Mars mission based on whatever comes out of the MPPG report is already in his budget, though all funding in the out-years is notional.    Grunsfeld has been quoted in other venues as saying the cost of the mission will be about $700 million and one question expected to arise in the planetary science community is whether those funds are best spent on a Mars mission.

The NRC issues "Decadal Surveys" for NASA's space and earth science disciplines every 10 years.  The most recent planetary science Decadal Survey was published last year.   Ordinarily, NRC Decadal Surveys are rigorously followed by NASA because they represent a consensus of the relevant science community and because Congress holds them in high esteem.

The first Decadal Survey for planetary exploration in 2003 dealt with Mars separately from the rest of the planetary exploration program.   This time, however, NASA directed the NRC to consider Mars as part of planetary exploration generally rather than as a special subset.  As the 2011 report Decadal Survey states, "Priorities for the Moon, Mars and other solar system bodies were treated in a unified manner with no pre-determined 'set-asides" for specific bodies.   This approach differs distinctly from the ground rules for the 2003 planetary science decadal survey, in which missions to Mars were prioritized separately."

With all of NASA's planetary exploration program under stress, questions are almost certain to arise about why the $700 million is already being allocated to Mars before a study has concluded that it can be wisely used to advance our understanding of Mars in accordance with the priorities laid out in the Decadal Survey.

At a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in March, Cornell University's Steve Squyres, who chaired the planetary science Decadal Survey and is now chair of the NASA Advisory Council said that a new Mars mission would conform with the Decadal Survey only if it advanced the goal of returning a sample of Mars to Earth -- the 2011 Decadal Survey's top priority for large planetary science missions.  The two Mars missions with ESA that were cancelled in the FY2013 budget request were part of a series of missions to accomplish that goal.  ESA is now planning to proceed with the first of the two missions, ExoMars, with Russia instead of the United States.

The frequent reference to the need for NASA to develop an integrated approach for Mars exploration addressing the combined goals of SMD and HEOMD prompts a related question about why so little attention is being made to advancing a nearer-term goal expounded by the President -- sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025.    That also would require an integrated approach by SMD and HEOMD.  Some scientists insist that one requirement is to launch a spacecraft designed to search for candidate asteroids that cannot be observed from Earth.   A "Venus-trailing" spacecraft that could view a much larger part of the sky is needed for such observations, they argue.  Although it was considered in a different context, a 2009 NRC report on the potential threat to Earth from asteroids and comets ("Near Earth Objects") described such an asteroid-hunting mission as costing about $600 million.

The message of today's press conference was that NASA is looking for innovative ideas for robotic Mars exploration that fit into the agency's longer term goal of sending humans to Mars and its constrained budget.  Convincing the planetary science community and its supporters that another Mars mission is more important than other planetary exploration missions waiting their turn may be a challenging task, and whether it advances President Obama's goals for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit  -- which starts with a human mission to an asteroid, not to Mars -- is an open question.


NASA to Hold Press Conference on New Mars Program Plans Today at 1:00 ET

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Apr-2012 (Updated: 13-Apr-2012 12:19 PM)

NASA will hold a teleconference at 1:00 pm ET today (Friday) to provide an update on its new plan for Mars exploration.

Participants are:

  • John Grunsfeld, associate administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate
  • Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Exploration Program, NASA Headquarters
  • Orlando Figueroa, team lead for the Mars Program Planning Group

Audio of the event will be streamed at


NORAD Confirms North Korean Launch Failed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2012 (Updated: 12-Apr-2012 11:16 PM)

The U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, confirmed in a statement that North Korea's attempted launch of a satellite -- or missile -- failed on April 12, 2012 Eastern Daylight Time (April 13 local time in North Korea).

NORAD said that the launch took place at 6:39 pm EDT and was tracked over the Yellow Sea.   "Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea.  The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat."

NBC news reported that the rocket broke apart 90 seconds after launch.

This was North Korea's third attempt, and third failure, to launch a satellite into orbit.   On the first two occasions, North Korean media sources told its isolated populace that the launch succeeded.   In this case, North Korea invited in foreign journalists prior to the launch, but apparently they were not told that the launch had taken place.  Many reports from western news sources soon after the launch quoted U.S. officials as saying the launch failed. The launch was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un.

Western analysts had expressed skepticism about the chances of a successful launch in recent days.

North Korea proceeded with the launch despite strong objections from the United States and other countries.   The United States and North Korea signed an agreement on February 29, 2012 in which the United States would provide food aid as long as North Korea adhered to international obligations, including not using ballistic missile technology.   The launch today violated that agreement and two United Nations Security Council resolutions.  Several news sources cited a White House statement, which is not yet on the White House website, saying that even though the launch failed, the act "threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments."


North Korean Launch Fails: Media Reports

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Apr-2012 (Updated: 12-Apr-2012 07:35 PM)

Several reports in the western news media state that North Korea conducted its launch today, but that it failed.

CNN and ABC News are among the media sources reporting the failure.   We will update this report as more information becomes available.

Western Analysts Skeptical about North Korea's Satellite Claims

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Apr-2012 (Updated: 11-Apr-2012 07:04 PM)

Veteran space analyst Jim Oberg, who serves as a consultant for NBC News, has been part of the foreign journalist corps allowed on site to see the rocket and spacecraft North Korea intends to launch in the next few days.   The spacecraft is not what he expected, he said in an interview for NBC, and the rocket is much more than is needed to launch it.  Meanwhile, other western analysts are skeptical that the satellite really is headed for a sun-synchronous orbit as North Korea states.

Oberg has worked in the U.S. space program for decades, including many years as a contractor at NASA's Johnson Space Center working on space shuttle orbital rendezvous oeprations.   In the NBC interview, he explained that he expected the Kwangmyongsong 3 (Bright Star 3) satellite -- a weather satellite according to North Korean officials -- to be in a clean room and probably already mounted to the rocket's third stage.   Instead, he and other journalists were allowed to walk right up to it:  "The problem is the North Koreans didn't just let us in [to the same room as the satellite], they let us get much too close.  I could've walked three steps and poked it with my finger."   Adding that at first he thought it was model, not the flight article, he was surprised they would allow people who had just arrived from a long road trip and were covered in dust so close.  "Maybe the satellite is built to be rugged; maybe they don't care.  We'll find out if they launch it, if it works or not."  As for the Unha-3 rocket, "it's bigger than it has to be."

Separately, some western space analysts are expressing skepticism that the satellite actually is intended to be placed in a sun-synchronous orbit.   It is a challenge to achieve such an orbit from North Korea's launch site on the east coast of the country.  Bob Christy at has posted a representation of the trajectory based on a screen grab from North Korean television, with an additional line showing the modified trajectory that it would have to follow to achieve sun-synchronous orbit.  He quotes Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report as calculating that the third stage would have to yaw "through something in the region of 50º before ignition," something Christy calls "ambitious."

Ted Molczcan, a highly respected amateur visual satellite observer in Canada who often posts on the SeeSat-L listserv, went so far as to tell Wired's Danger Room that he believes "the most reasonable interpretation is that they are lying about this being a satellite launch, which has been betrayed by the incompetence of their propagandists in over-reaching their cover story."  

North Korea has stated it will conduct the launch to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of their country's founder, Kim Il-sung, which is on April 15.    Some reports suggest the launch will take place sometime between Thursday and Monday, but an exact launch date and time is not yet available.   Kim Il-sung is the grandfather of North Korea's current president, Kim Jong-un.   The United States and other countries are strongly opposed to the launch, which they consider to be a missile test, not a satellite launch, that violates two United Nations Security Council resolutions and a recent U.S.-North Korea agreement. 

North Korea Readies for Provocative Satellite Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2012 (Updated: 10-Apr-2012 11:24 PM)

North Korea continues its preparations to launch a satellite in the next several days to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder despite strong objections by the United States and other countries.  The launch is anticipated between Thursday and Monday.

The United States and other countries have made clear that such a launch would violate two United Nations Security Council resolutions and is a provocative act that will result in consequences if North Korea proceeds. 

For its part, North Korea insists that it is the launch of a remote sensing satellite in the pursuit of peaceful uses of outer space.  It has opened the launch to foreign journalists who have been posting news stories for the past several days.   White House National Security Council staffer Tommy Vietor rebuked the journalists, telling Politico's Dylan Byers that "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know this is a propaganda exercise. ... Reporters have to be careful not to get co-opted."   Vietor went on to say that the foreign news corps was being restricted to seeing only "military hardware.  They're not allowing them to tour the countryside and see the people who are starving."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking today at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, hinted at concerns that the missile launch could be just the first of other threats North Korea might pose, including the possibility of another nuclear weapons test.  She said the United States is working with other countries, including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea to convince North Korea that "true security will only come from living up to its commitments and obligations, first and foremost to their own people."

The United States and North Korea signed an agreement on February 29 -- the "Leap Day Deal" --  in which the United States agreed to provide food assistance in return for North Korea participating in negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and meeting its international obligations.  Part of the agreement required North Korea to refrain from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology, but just two weeks later, on March 16, North Korea announced that it would launch a satellite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the April 15, 1912 birth of Kim Il-sung, the country's first leader and grandfather of its current president Kim Jong-un.

The U.S. Government has made clear that if North Korea proceeds with the launch, violating that agreement as well as United Nations resolutions 1718 and 1874 that also prohibit North Korea from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology, it would be difficult to provide the food assistance since it would be apparent that North Korean officials could not be trusted to fulfill agreements.

The New York Times reports that North Korea notified international aviation authorities that the rocket's first stage would land in the ocean 90 nautical miles off Kunsan, South Korea and the second stand would drop in the ocean east of the Philippines.

In Case You Missed It: AAS Goddard Symposium and SWF Conference Presentations Available

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Apr-2012 (Updated: 10-Apr-2012 10:23 PM)

Video or audio recordings of two recent space policy-related conferences are now available on the Web.

Video from the American Astronautical Society's 50th Goddard Memorial Symposium, held March 28-29, 2012 in Greenbelt, MD, is now posted on NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's (GSFC) website.  Video of all the presentations is available, including remarks by --

  • Christopher Scolese, GSFC Director;
  • Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator;
  • Steve Squyres, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council;
  • House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX);
  • Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and
  • Rear Admiral Liz Young, National Reconnaissance Office

Audio recordings of the Space Security Conference 2012 sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), held March 29-20, 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland, are also available.  Included are presentations from --

  • Victoria Samson, Director of SWF's Washington Office;
  • Theresa Hitchens, Director of UNIDIR;
  • Peter Marquez, former Director of Space Policy for the White House National Security Council and currently Vice President for Space Strategy and Planning, Orbital Sciences Corp.;
  • Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy;
  • John Sheldon, professor of Space and Cyberspace Srategy at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base;
  • Victor Vasiliev, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office in Geneva; and
  • Haitao WU, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for Disarmament Affairs and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Peoples Republic of China to the U.N. Office at Geneva.

Editor's Note:  The video of my closing remarks to the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium on March 28 is also available on the GSFC site.

Events of Interest


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